Just about every event in Guilford County – and across the country for that matter – has been canceled this week.
However, one is still set to go on as scheduled. On Thursday, March 19, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners will hold its regular meeting, and, for what’s thought to be the first time in the county’s history, members of the media and other members of the public will not be allowed in.
On Monday, March 16, Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips stated that the meeting, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, would be held. On Tuesday, March 17, Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller stated that, aside from the commissioners and limited county staff, no one will be admitted. Keller said the meeting would be televised and live-streamed on the internet.
The decision to hold the meeting bucks the massive cancellation trend for just about everything else scheduled for March and early April. The City of Greensboro, for instance, postponed the scheduled City Council meeting on Tuesday, March 17 until Tuesday, March 31. The city did cancel all meetings of boards and commissioners for 30 days.
North Carolina General Statute 143-318.10, titled “All official meetings of public bodies open to the public,” states that, with exceptions for specific instances, such as closed sessions for personnel reasons or to consult with an attorney, and other limited circumstances, “each official meeting of a public body shall be open to the public, and any person is entitled to attend such a meeting.”
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne cited NC General Statute 166A-19.31 as the legal justification for excluding the public. That statute gives the local government a great number of exceptional powers during a state of emergency such as the one the county is under now.
Phillips said that obviously the move was being made to preserve public safety.
A Monday, March 16 recommendation by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that no groups consisting of more than 10 people should assemble. So it’s certainly understandable that the county does not want a large meeting room full of people – though, even without the public and media, there will certainly be more than 10 people at the meeting. There are, for starters, nine commissioners, which almost puts the county at the limit right there – though Keller said some commissioners are expected to participate by telephone.
Amanda Martin, the general counsel to the NC Press Association, wrote in an email that, while she doesn’t believe providing a video feed of the meeting “fully complies with the letter of the law,” there are two caveats.
First, she stated, an often-cited NC Court of Appeals case that addresses reasonable access to meetings “might allow for some harmonizing with directives from health officials.”
“Second,” Martin added, “I think it’s possible a judge might give a pass to a public agency that is trying to accommodate both the open meetings law and the need to not exacerbate a pandemic.”
One item has been removed from the meeting agenda Thursday night: The county had planned to honor the life accomplishments of a 99-year-old county resident who was set to attend. That will be rescheduled for a later date.